The road to PGA 2012, South Carolina's first major, paved with many golf firsts

The 94th PGA Championship is arguably the biggest golf event in the history of the state of South Carolina.

The 2012 PGA Championship is less than 100 days away, but it's already a record-breaking event that transcends golf and sports. Tournament-long passes for the Aug. 9-12 event at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island sold out faster than for any previous PGA.

Unprecedented popularity was the plan on a steamy June day in 2005 when then S.C. Governor Mark Sanford, Ocean Course designer Pete Dye and other dignitaries were on hand for “the most significant announcement in the history of South Carolina golf.”

Indeed, the first major tournament booked for a state that offers “First in Golf” license plates.

It's an extension of Charleston golf “firsts” spread over the history of our nation, and then some:

A shipment of 432 golf balls and 96 clubs arrives from Scotland's port of Leith at the office of Charleston merchant David Deas. An equipment first, according to research by historians Dr. George C. Rogers Jr. and Charles Price for a definitive 1980 book, “The Carolina Lowcountry — Birthplace of American Golf, 1786.”

The first American golf club is founded at Harleston Green on the Charleston peninsula, probably in 1786. Rogers and others have found newspaper references in 1788 and 1791 mentioning anniversary meetings, including one at the Williams Coffee House calling for attendance by members of the South Carolina Golf Club to discuss business over dinner.

The great Walter Hagen wins the first Charleston Open, a PGA Tour event that ran through 1937 at the Country Club of Charleston. The 1933 purse was $2,500. The Junior League sold $3.30 passes for the three-day event.

Club pro Henry Picard was the Charleston Open magnet. An established figure within the growing sport, he finished a stroke behind Hagen in 1933, later won the tournament and is best known for winning two majors — the 1938 Masters and 1939 PGA Championship.

“It kind of makes me mad. He was skipped in history,” said former LPGA star Beth Daniel.

She grew up playing at the Country Club of Charleston and officially introduced Picard at his posthumous 2006 induction ceremony at the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla. “He was not a self-promoter. People don't realize what a great player he was. He played with (Ben) Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson in his prime. All the guys came to him for help with their swings. He was credited with curing Hogan's hook.”

The first Azalea Invitational is held at the Country Club of Charleston. The famed amateur tournament counts former Clemson All-American D.J. Trahan, Ken Green, George Burns and Billy Joe Patton among its winners. Champions receive a trophy honoring the late Frank Ford, who won the first Azalea and three others. His grandson, Frank Ford III, won six Azalea titles.

Frank Ford Sr. died at 100 in 2005.

“He was the patriarch here in Charleston,” said Hart Brown, the Country Club of Charleston's PGA Director of Golf. “He always stood for being a gentleman and being a competitor. He was always here when his son, grandson and great-grandson were competing. He just loved to watch competitive golf.”

The first Rice Planters Amateur Tournament at Snee Farm Country Club in Mount Pleasant. From an inaugural field composed mostly of local golfers, the event grew to host some of the top rising stars in the sport: Andy Bean, Tom Lehman, Davis Love III, Mark O'Meara, Stewart Cink, Scott Verplank, Hal Sutton and Scott Hoch.

The bitterly contested Ryder Cup at the Ocean Course quickly became “The War by wthe Shore.” It was the first U.S. victory over Europe since 1983 and wasn't secure until Germany's Bernhard Langer missed a six-foot putt on the final hole.

The Kiawah crowd broke into chants of “USA! USA!” as the home team held on for a 14½-13½ victory.

The drama unfolded two Septembers after the eye of Hurricane Hugo passed slightly north of Kiawah Island. The Category 4 storm led to 27 deaths in South Carolina and was the costliest hurricane in U.S. history at the time.

Dye had to scramble with Ocean Course construction.

“Hugo changed everything,” Dye said. “It changed what we were going to do. It tore down all the trees and changed the sand along the edges. Sand dunes disappeared and trees fell into the lagoons. Hugo put us a little behind. We spent three or four months getting the place cleaned up.”

The first Monday After The Masters Celebrity Pro-Am hosted by Hootie and the Blowfish band members, including Charleston native Darius Rucker and Mount Pleasant resident Mark Bryan. The fun began in Columbia, moved to Kiawah Island in 2001 for two years and has been in Myrtle Beach since 2003.

The MAM celebrity list has included Tiger Woods, John Elway, Brett Favre, Kyle Petty, Alice Cooper, Ric Flair and always a strong contingent of PGA tour players.

“My caddie is bringing my medicine,” comic actor Bill Murray said during the 2001 event at the Ocean Course.

The first group that year included Rucker, Dan Marino and John Daly.

“I'm killing the ball,” Rucker told Blowfish drummer Jim Sonefeld. “Killing it. Murdering it.”

“So,” Sonefeld asked, “are you going to win?”

“Oh, absolutely not,” Rucker said.

The first LPGA tour event in the Lowcountry. The Ginn Tribute Hosted by Annika was short-lived — it lasted only two years — but the RiverTowne Country Club event had a whopping purse of $2.6 million.

Daniel was the official honoree in 2008, a tribute to her 33 LPGA tour victories and 1990 LPGA Championship.

The Senior PGA Championship is the oldest major in senior golf (dating to the 1937 event at Augusta National) and was the first played in South Carolina. Denis Watson shot a final-round 68 at the Ocean Course to edge Eduardo Romero and Nick Price and win $360,000.

“This validates my golfing career,” said Watson, a 51-year-old from Zimbabwe whose career was sprinkled with injuries. “It's gratifying to know that I've still got it after all these years.”

After all these years — 269 since those first clubs arrived from Scotland — Lowcountry golf still has it, too.

Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593